straight bows

December 22, 2018, 12:04 AM · my teacher used to make a big deal about making sure that my bows moved parallel to the bridge so that they were straight. however, I have seen a lot of fantastic violinists (particularly those who were active in the first half of the 20th century) who don't look like they're doing this. what I most often see is that the bow will start parallel to the bridge when it's at the frog and then it is angled away from the player by the time they get to the tip (I can't explain it very well so I'm just going to hope people know what I'm referring to). it also looks like they're bowing over/at the fingerboard at the tip and I don't see the reason for it. I have seen other variants of this and it appears to be intentional.
I think I read something about it having to do with a different bow hold or school of teaching and it was a vague explanation. what is the advantage of bowing this way? are they just moving between sounding points or is there some other reason?

Replies (15)

December 22, 2018, 12:12 AM · I see it a lot too, especially Isaac Stern.
December 22, 2018, 1:34 AM · I guess your teacher wanted you to learn and master straight bowing first, before you could tilt and angle away your bow like an international soloist.
Edited: December 22, 2018, 6:26 AM · Matt is right of course, however, the most important is that your bow hair contacts the string in the lane where you want it to. The straight bow is a solid technique to avoid that the bow hair moves to a different lane (and, angling the bow in or out is an established way of letting your bow drift to another lane). But, as long as you produce a good sound, are flexible, and are bowing at the lane where you want, you are clearly doing fine. That probably explains what you observe with those violin masters. They know what they are doing.
December 22, 2018, 8:42 AM · It seems to me that some of the great ones "taper" their downbow stroke toward the tip because their arms aren't long enough to do otherwise. But there is also a musical reason to do this: it moves the bow hair closer to the fingerboard so the amplitude of the sound is reduced and the forthcoming bow change is less audible.
December 22, 2018, 2:07 PM · If the bow is not parallel to the bridge, the bow hair will pull either towards the bridge or the fingerboard, off of the ideal point of contact. The physicists will call that vector forces. Drifting over the fingerboard is the main problem. After learning how to bow straight, the bowing can be modified by a very slight angle, to keep the bow where you want it. Warchal has a diagram of that somewhere on their web-site. It looks like a very elongated figure-8 pattern.
December 22, 2018, 2:11 PM · Of COURSE many of the great violinists did and do this. But teachers always try to pretend its not the case. Same as swaying and moving to the music. Every teacher I had, old world and new world, wanted me to stand like a statute with a specific posture, even as I watched all soloists including my teachers do the opposite.

It's all in HOW one does it, of course.

December 22, 2018, 11:11 PM · Michael, exactly right. If you sound like Bell, for example, no one cares about your crazy bow hold.
December 23, 2018, 7:19 AM · One must realize that "imitating the masters" while playing with a crooked bow is all too often used as an excuse for lacking attention to detail (sloppy playing). While many of these players did indeed know what they were doing, many other players do not.

In short, there's nothing wrong with playing with a "straight bow", and it will still be the right guideline, very seldomly broken for specific musical and technical reasons. Sound is more important than form, but it's rare when "bad form" produces great results.

(While I do not advocate "statue playing", dancing about the stage "too much" does have audible consequences even for the bigger names. That is also something to consider while delivering one's musical message, for better or worse.)

I would agree some teachers often tell students to do things they wouldn't themselves. In the case of teenage and older students, IMHO they should be able to at least partially explain why they don't do as they say (there's usually a fair reason, but can come accross as inconsistent as "do as I say, not as I do.")

December 23, 2018, 7:47 AM · Here is a nice shot of bow angles, with someone not known to bob and weave a lot:

December 23, 2018, 7:51 AM · Great Russian violinists who were pupils of Auer, with arms short enough to not be able to reach the tip of the bow, learned to arc the bow slightly at the tip (dropping the elbow back slightly) rather than hyperextending the arm to maintain a bow that is strictly parallel to the bridge.

You lose the straight bow but you maintain firmer contact with the string. The sight of this will give some straight-bow advocates conniptions, though, even if the arc is deliberate and well-controlled.

(I do this; my arms are short enough that my "correct" bow length and cup-the-scroll length is definitely a 3/4, not a full-size violin.)

Edited: December 23, 2018, 7:57 AM · Heifetz did some interesting changes of angle further away from the tip, as well.

And doing more of an arc at the tip isn’t just for short arms. I have found on at least one fiddle that it makes for better tone and my arms are long enough to do otherwise.

December 23, 2018, 9:14 AM · If you're a beginner or intermediate player this is not even a useful discussion; keeping the bow parallel to the bridge in the right part of the string should be the focus.

But for advanced players I think the elliptical bow is an interesting concept. I.e. pushing the frog further out to produce a greater angle on down-bow but pulling the frog in for a tighter angle on up-bow. The slight (and i mean SLIGHT) deviation from 90 degree angle helps maintain good contact with the string especially on long held notes.

December 23, 2018, 2:15 PM · Personally, I have found that people respond better to the idea of Arcs or curves than they do to "Straight." There is nothing natural about something moving perfectly straight, and we are designed to work in curved motions, not straight ones.

Because of this, these days I actually introduce "crescent bows" much earlier in the teaching process (often Suzuki book 1), because it's an active correction, rather than a passive one as in the case of "straight" bowing. By this, I mean that they can think of bowing "out" on the downbows" and "in" on the upbows, and if they happen to do too much of either of these motions, the bow is still generally moving in an effective manner. And of course this motion must be fine-tuned over time to not be too big of a crescent, and most of the time by thinking of the crescent, the students end up just bowing very closely to straight. But if I'd told them "straight" they would have ended up pulling the whole arm back on downbows and pushing the whole thing forward on upbows.

Anyways, I guess my point is that slightly curved bowing is generally superior to the idea of a perfectly straight bow.

Edited: December 23, 2018, 3:13 PM · Regarding Erik Williams' words on "crescent bows". I call it "banana bowing". The point is that a straight bowing feels like you are making a crescent or a banana shaped bowing. Kids understand that metaphor easily.

I often say to my students that they need to be able to take control of the bow. So if the bow slides back and fourth or whatever it is not because they are in control of what they are doing, it is the exact opposite. So once they have a good ability to be in control of the bowing you can start experimenting with other ways of bowing.

Professional violinists utilize all the different sounds or sound colours you can make with the bow on different places, near the bridge, near the fingerboard, in between and so on. But a beginner needs to learn to crawl before walking.

December 23, 2018, 4:22 PM · Teaching a beginner is light-years from coaching a professional. The basic techniques of bowing from the elbow, not the shoulder as well as being able to maintain friction at the sounding point (and changing as you go into higher positions) is what it is really all about.

That Pearlman's bow isn't precisely at 90-degrees to the strings is moot when you consider his tone.

Getting young musicians to stop bowing from the shoulder (with an almost frozen elbow) is challenging and frustrating. Hence our demands to keep the bow straight. When my students start sounding like Pearlman, I'll keep quiet.

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